Advent Meditation :: Part I


Advent is upon us once again, and just in time for me.  November was a month that saw the Spirited Life staff on the road for our Fall Workshops (it was great to see so many of you face to face!) and then I traveled with my husband and daughter to New Hampshire for a week of feasting in celebration of Thanksgiving with our family up in that part of the world.  By the time the calendar turned to December, I was thoroughly exhausted and feeling woefully unprepared for another round of holiday celebrations only a few weeks away.

But before Christmas comes with all its feasting, we have Advent, as distinct a season as Lent is from Easter.  I don’t know about you, but my soul longs for some quiet this time of year.  My husband and I chose early in our marriage to keep our gift giving (to one another and extended family) to a minimum, and focus on celebrating Christmas as truly the arrival of Christ’s birth, His gift to us.  Keeping the gift giving to simple, homemade items keeps us away from the malls in December (never a pretty sight!) and allows us to be home, baking cookies with our daughter, crafting Christmas surprises, going for walks in our neighborhood to look at all the decorations, singing together, welcoming friends and neighbors for some hot cocoa or a simple meal.  The most important thing we do during Advent is hold the space for some silence.

Silence, particularly the waiting silence of Advent, is pretty counter-cultural these days. The old adage, “Good things come to those who wait,” seems to have been thoroughly buried in our cultural memory by the demand for instant gratification.  In our high-speed internet world, the question seems to be “Why wait?”  Yet scripture, and even just my own weary psyche, tells a different story.  We wait because God commands it.  We wait because we live in the tension of the “already/not yet.”  We wait because for all the blessings in our lives, we still know pain and suffering, and long for the day when all our tears will be wiped away.  We wait because it takes a long time to grow a seed into a flower, or to grow a Christian into one who really reflects Christ’s glory to the world.  We wait for babies to be born, and for the ill to become well again, and for the dying to breathe their last.

This is holy waiting, not a waste of time.  And this holy waiting — it does something to me. It calms me, it quiets me, it reminds me that I am not the center of the universe, that I do not need to “‘perform” to some external standard.  It transforms my perception of myself from an overbooked working mom into simply a humble vessel, one small part of a “great cloud of witnesses” who together seek to bear Christ’s light into the world today, as Mary did all those years ago, in silence, in prayer, and in waiting.

To be continued…

–Words and images by Caren Swanson


The Eternal Dance


Recently, I read a 2006 interview in The Christian Century with Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart, in which he discussed his book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami. The discussion I’ve quoted below reminded me of the “absurd impracticality” of human flourishing within a Christian conception. Though we are dust, and to dust we will return, we go on pursuing a life fully alive–not for the illusion of escaping death, but for the joy of grateful stewardship before our Creator and Sustainer.

To see the world in the Christian way–which…requires the eye of charity and a faith in Easter–is in some sense to venture everything upon an absurd impracticality… But, as I was writing the book, I found myself thinking again and again of a photograph I had seen in the Baltimore Sun.

The story concerned the Akhdam, the lowest social caste in Yemen, supposedly descended from Ethiopians left behind when the ancient Ethiopian empire was driven out of Arabia in the sixth century, who live in the most unimaginable squalor. In the background of the photo was a scattering of huts constructed from crates and shreds of canvas, and on all sides barren earth; but in the foreground was a little girl, extremely pretty, dressed in tatters, but with her arms outspread, a look of delight upon her face, dancing.

To me that was a heartbreaking picture, of course, but it was also an image of something amazing and glorious: the sheer ecstasy of innocence, the happiness of a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise.

….That child’s dance is nothing less than the eternal dance of divine Wisdom before God’s throne, the dance of David and the angels and saints before his glory; it is the true face of creation, which God came to restore and which he will not suffer to see corruption. (“Where Was God? An Interview with David Bentley Hart.” The Christian Century 10 Jan. 2006: 26-29.)

–Tommy Grimm

(Photo by Flickr user Evan Long via Creative Commons)


A time for mourning, a time for healing


(Part 2 of Reflections on the Aurora, CO, shooting)

All healing is of God… Healing is not magic, but underlying it is the great mystery of God’s love… God does not promise that we shall be spared suffering but does promise to be with us in our suffering. Trusting that promise, we are enabled to recognize God’s sustaining presence in pain, sickness, injury, and estrangement. (From the Introduction to Services of Healing, Book of Worship, p. 613)

As Christians, we are fortunate to bear witness to God’s healing mercy in a broken world. And yet, as the above passage points out, God neither promises that we shall be spared suffering, nor that the suffering we do bear will be “magically” erased. What does it mean to pray for healing in a time of mourning? What does healing look like?

Before healing can occur, one must grieve, and as the oft-referenced passage from Ecclesiastes implies, this process takes time. While there are certain stages of grief that many people experience (acceptance of loss, allowing oneself to feel the physical and emotional pain of grief, adjusting to living in the new landscape of life after the tragedy, and eventually moving on) each person’s journey through grief is unique, as is the time frame for that journey.

I think the tragedy that was unleashed in Aurora, Colo., can be an opportunity for all of us to both examine our own grief (we all have experienced loss on some level) and to think together about how we support one another in our individual and communal losses. We can pray for the healing of our internal wounds, and pray that our communities would be healed of the things that divide us. Sometimes, the most important role clergy play is not that of the healer, but simply one who is witness to someone’s grief, who lets others know that they are not alone.

The other side of grief is the reality that tragedy often reveals to us just how resilient people, and communities, can be.  I was reminded of this while listening to an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition the Saturday morning following the shooting. On the program, host Scott Simon spoke with Tom Olbrich, the disaster response coordinator at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health in Denver. Tom provided counseling through organized support groups after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, which took place mere miles from Aurora.

In the interview Olbrich reminds listeners that a community response to tragedy is more a marathon than a sprint. People are numb and in shock initially, so while it is important to offer immediate response to those directly impacted, other people might need time to process the situation before they are ready to receive services. Olbrich reiterates the importance of normalizing the range of human emotion that arises in response to grief, and of letting people know that there’s not something “wrong with them” if they are having a hard time processing something.

Ultimately, Olbrich points out, tragedy can have the effect of clarifying our priorities and revealing our strength:

People can do very well and get through these things and come out of it on the other side with a better perspective on life and feeling stronger — maybe not happier, but stronger as individuals… We understand now what’s really important — how to take care of ourselves and how to take care of each other.

(To hear or read the full interview, click here.)

-Caren Swanson

Top photo by Flickr user CaptPiper (via Creative Commons)

Lower photo used with permission via WikiMedia Commons


Reflections on the Aurora, CO, shooting


Aurora is the Roman goddess of dawn, spoken of in such texts as Virgil’s Aeneid: Aurora now had left her saffron bed / And beams of early light the heav’ns o’erspread / When, from a tow’r, the queen, with wakeful eyes / Saw day point upward from the rosy skies.

While the name Aurora is synonymous with beauty, for those of us who casually turned on the news Friday morning, or opened a Saturday newspaper, it instantly became tainted with senseless violence and terror.

Clergy are often asked in times of national tragedy to answer seemingly unanswerable questions: “How can this be?” or “What would I have done had I been in that dark, suburban movie theater?” or “What could have caused someone to do such a thing?” or “How can a loving God allow such a thing to happen?”  Clergy are asked to lead the rest of us in our mourning and to assuage our fears.  Especially in a culture where many of our social supports and structures have eroded, people often turn to religion when national news shocks them out of the lull of their day-to-day lives.

As pastors, how do you help your congregations make meaning from this event?  And how do you navigate the pressure to answer for the existence of bald-faced evil in our world without allowing that pressure to become a permanent source of stress?

There are, of course, many answers, but in the rawness of the current moment, the rich Christian tradition of lament seems an appropriate place to begin.

In a very thoughtful post on his Patheos blog, “Slow Church,” Christopher Smith shares an excerpt from Reconciling All Things, by Chris Rice and Emmanuel Katongole of the Center For Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School:

The first language of the church in a deeply broken world is not strategy, but prayer.  The journey of reconciliation is grounded in a call to see and encounter the rupture of this world so truthfully that we are literally slowed down.  We are called to a space where any explanation or action is too easy, too fast, too shallow — a space where the right response can only be a desperate cry directed to God.  We are called to learn the anguished cry of lament.

Another prayer, beautifully rendered for the people of Aurora, was shared on the blog of Rachel Held Evans on Friday:

Gracious and loving God, You watch the ways of all of us and the utter destruction of which our hands are capable. We implore you to weave goodness and grace in the lives of those destroyed by senseless violence. Surround those whose lives are shattered with a sense of your present love. Wrap them in the worn quilt of your compassion. Though they are lost in grief, May they find you and be comforted.  AMEN

Truly, when something like this happens, there are no words, and silence can be an important part of honoring the loss of lives and loved ones in this and any tragedy.  And yet, God has given us words to help us “weave goodness and grace” back into life.  I’ll close with this liturgy of lament, pieced together from many Scripture passages by Laurence Hull Stookey.  And my prayer for each of you is that you would be given the words that are necessary, and the courage to offer your own silence and grief when it is appropriate.

Prayer of Lament

O God, you are our help and strength,
our refuge in the time of trouble.
In you our ancestors trusted;
They trusted and you delivered them.
When we do not know how to pray as we ought,
your very Spirit intercedes for us
with sighs too deep for words.
We plead for the intercession now, Gracious One.

For desolation and destruction are in our streets,
and terror dances before us.
Our hearts faint; our knees tremble;
our bodies quake; all faces grow pale.
Our eyes are spent from weeping
and our stomachs churn.

How long, O Lord, how long
must we endure this devastation?
How long will destruction lay waste at noonday?
Why does violence flourish
while peace is taken prisoner?
Rouse yourself! Do not cast us off in times of trouble.
Come to our help;
redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

For you are a gracious God
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

By the power of the cross,
through which you redeemed the world,
bring to an end hostility
and establish justice in the gate.
For you will gather together your people into that place
where mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
and tears will be wiped from every eye.
Hasten the day, O God for our salvation.
Accomplish it quickly! Amen.

From Let the Whole Church Say Amen! A Guide for Those Who Pray in Public by Laurence Hull Stookey, pp 94-95 (Copyright 2001 by Abingdon Press).  Scriptures from which the above prayer comes are: Psalm 124:8, Psalm 37:39, Psalm 22:4, Romans 8:26, Isaiah 59:7, Job 41:22, Nahum 2:10, Lamentations 2:11, Isaiah 6:11, Psalm 91:6, Psalm 44:23, Psalm 44:26, Exodus 34:6, 1 Corinthians 1:17, Ephesians 2:14, Amos 5:15, Revelation 21:4, Isaiah 60:22.

Yes God, accomplish it quickly indeed!  And may that day “point upward,” as Virgil wrote so long ago, “from the rosy skies.”

Part 1 of a 2-part series.  Further reflections here.

–Caren Swanson

Images used with permission via flickr and the Creative Commons.


Toward a Theology of Illness


Part of health and wellness involves how we respond to illness, whether it’s episodic, like the flu, or persistent, like arthritis. No matter how much we exercise or how many vegetables we eat, we will continue to suffer bodily afflictions. As a Christian, what does it look like to suffer well?

A friend recently emailed me a quotation by a French Orthodox theologian that gestures toward one possible answer to that question. I was challenged by it; perhaps you will be too.

The Fathers stress the point that “it is not in vain, nor without reason, that we are subject to illnesses.”  This is why they encourage us to be vigilant when illness strikes, and not to trouble ourselves first of all with their natural causes and means to cure them.  Rather, our first concern should be to discern their meaning within the framework of our relationship to God, and to throw light on the positive function they can have in furthering our salvation… Understood and experienced in this perspective, illness does not crush a person under the weight of their “mortal body” (Rom. 7:24), but to the contrary turns the person towards God.  It reunites the person to God, drawing him toward God as the true source and end of his existence.  It offers wisdom to his intelligence – that is, true knowledge of the world, of himself, and of God – and to his will it offers conformity to the will of his Creator.

(from Jean-Claude Larchet, The Theology of Illness. Translated by John & Michael Breck (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), p. 58.)

Tommy Grimm

(Image: Brent Moore via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Reflecting on self-care as Christ-care


I just love what Anna Adams has to say in Self-Care as Christ-Care, a post on the Call & Response blog from a few weeks ago.  It’s been part of my inner-dialogue since I read it, and I think it’s stuck with me for a reason:

It’s incredibly easy for all of us to pick and choose our moments of self-care, isn’t it? I’m even proficient at coming up with theological reasons to disregard my health!

But, for me, as a Christian, incarnation lays down the trump card.

Image: Randy OHC

When I read Adams’ gentle reminder that I take the Body, make it part of my own flesh, and am instructed to live worthily of it, I’m forced to acknowledge: God knows the body. He knows what it is to abide in flesh, and he delights in our fleshly existence.

How, then, do I reflect that His flesh is an integral part of my own (or that my flesh is an integral part of His own)? How do you reflect Christ’s in-dwelling in the way you care for your own flesh?

Click here to read the full post by Anna Adams.

by Ellie Poole